Whatcom 2036

County Council begins hearings on growth plan

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Green and productive lands—they might just be the most important concern to people who live in Whatcom County: The farms, the forests, the lakes and mountains. When family and friends come to visit, these are the sights visitors long to see. They’re our bragging rights.

A natural tension exists in these natural lands, though, between keeping them pristine and keeping them in use as commercially productive areas.

Whatcom County Council continues its update of the county’s Comprehensive Plan, and they’re taking up this important topic next week—the portion of the plan that concerns resource lands. The plan will help guide county policies for these lands for the next 20 years. And Council not only wants your opinion on these policies, but they also need it—public participation is required for Comp Plan updates under the state’s Growth Management Act.

Staff has commented on the update. The county Planning Commission has held numerous meetings and taken comments, particularly from businesses with a financial interest in land-use decisions. The Planning Commission has assembled its reports and made recommendations. Now the county’s legislative authority, County Council, will spend the next several months considering each piece, along with testimony they receive, with the hopes they’ll complete the plan update by mid-summer.

To that end, Council last week carved out additional time at the beginning of their regular evening sessions to receive public comment on various chapters of the Comprehensive Plan. They’ll take each section of the plan in turn, beginning with Chapters 1 and 4 on Tues., March 22.

Chapter 1, laying the groundwork for planning principles and goals, may be the most fundamental:

“Whatcom County’s Comprehensive Plan is intended to guide growth in unincorporated areas for the next 20 years,” reads the early draft of the chapter’s opening. “The fundamental purpose of the Comprehensive Plan is to establish a framework of goals, and policies and action items to guide growth, land use, capital facility and transportation planning, and environmental protection.”

The GMA provides the framework for this regional coordination of goals and policies. Local comprehensive plans must include provisions for land use, housing, capital facilities, utilities, transportation, and—for counties—a rural element. And, in the midst of all this commercial bustle, plans must also protect our quiet, sensitive areas for natural habitat, wildlife and critical resources for future generations.

The Comp Plan attempts to answer: “Will we sprawl into farmland or will we protect this key economic driver? Will we set goals to solve water quantity problems, or will we continue to wait for someone else to solve them for us? Will we attempt to grapple with the issues of global climate change through enlightened public policy? And—to that end—will our plan establish limiting principles on the variety of industries we welcome here that help achieve these goals?

“The development of these goals and policies is necessary,” the section on Resource Lands reads, “to ensure the provision of land suitable for long-term farming, forestry, and mineral extraction so the production of food, fiber, wood products, and minerals can be maintained as an important part of our economic base through the planning period. Without protection of these resource lands,” the chapter cautions, “some of the lands could be inappropriately or prematurely converted into land uses incompatible with long-term resource production. The premature conversion of resource lands into incompatible uses places additional constraints on remaining resource lands and can lead to further erosion of the resource land base.”

In 2000, one-quarter of habitable lands in the county were devoted to agriculture. It is shrinking every year.

“As significant as agriculture is to the economy, these lands are often considered for urban or rural uses, and the amount of land in farm production has been steadily shrinking over time,” staff warned in their report. “This erosion of the farm land base has implications for the county’s wider economy. For example, the maintenance of a sufficiently large land area devoted to farming is necessary to support associated farm processing operations such as milk and berry processing facilities.”

The fishing industry, too, faces a variety of restrictions on its activities, staff warn in their report.

“The populations of many fish species have declined. Chinook salmon and bull trout have been listed under the Endangered Species Act. Moratoria, quotas, and harvest management are already in place for most of the species Whatcom County fishers currently harvest. Nevertheless, the fishing industry contributes substantially to the county’s economy.”

Similar observations are made on forestry.

“The forest resources of Whatcom County have historically been one of the most important natural resources in the region,” staff commented. “Forests cover approximately half of the non-federal lands in the county. In addition to trees for lumber, poles and paper, forest land products include gravel, rock, medicinal products, and ornamental plants. Logging and processing various types of forest products employ hundreds of county residents. Like fishing, however, forestry is subject to limitations, because forest lands provide important associated resources such as water, wildlife habitat, and fish habitat which need to be conserved.”

These are pictures of natural resources out of balance, too heavily harvested or incompletely managed and protected.

As invariably happens, business and commercial interests have spoken early and loudly on these matters. But we do live in a democracy, and Council wants to know what most people think about land-use policy. What do most people want to see in Whatcom 2036? Your elected representatives have made time for you. Make time for them.

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